A Curry Paste Jar, a Keepsake, a Symbol of British Colonialism

Hello loyal blog readers, welcome back to another year of posts on the history and archaeology of 19th century Christchurch. I thought we’d start the year off by looking back at one of our more interesting finds from the very end of 2020 and talking a bit about how we catalogue and research the artefacts we find, and how we then interpret them .

The artefact in question is this ceramic jar. The jar is made from earthenware and is glazed inside and out. Ware-type is one of the main attributes that I record when cataloguing ceramic artefacts. It describes the fabric of the vessel, what it is made out of, with there being three main ware-types: earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. These main ware-types relate to the temperature at which the vessel was fired at, which in turn affects the fabric of the vessel. As well as recording the ware type, I also record the glaze and form of the vessel. In the case of our jar here, it has a clear (or clear with a slight tint) glaze inside and on the rim, and a teal-coloured slip-glaze on the outer body. The form is a jar, which I would describe as having a rolled rim, a concave neck, a convex shoulder and body, and a flat base.

The jar in question: Shaik Fyzool Kurreem’s True Bengal Curry Paste. Image: C. Watson.

Once I’ve recorded the fabric and form of the vessel, I then record any decoration and marks. In the case of our jar here, it’s not decorated as such, but the body is textured, like a golf ball, and so I recorded that as decoration because it’s unusual. Written on the body of the jar is: SHAIK FYZOOL KURREEM’S/TRUE BENGAL/ CURRY PASTE. There were no other marks on the base of the jar.

A close-up of the writing on the jar. Image: C. Watson.

To say I was surprised at the jar would be an understatement. When it landed on my desk, I had no idea who Shaik Fyzool Kurreem was, and I wouldn’t have had a clue that it was a curry paste jar if it hadn’t been labelled as such. Everything about the jar, from the ware type and glaze to the decoration, was unusual. Almost all the ceramic jars we find on our archaeological sites are stoneware or whiteware and if they’re decorated, it’s only with a simple moulded band.

A selection of more typical 19th century stoneware and whiteware jars. Image: C. Watson.

As part of our artefact analysis process, we research any marks on the artefact to help us date it. Normally with ceramic vessels, this means looking in Geoffrey Godden’s Encyclopaedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks. The book is essentially a bible when it comes to ceramic marks and it makes my job very easy most of the time (if you have ceramic marks that you want to date but don’t have a copy of Godden, then Steve Birks’ The Potteries Website is a close second). In the case of our jar though, the mark isn’t describing the manufacturer of the jar, but rather the contents, which makes things a bit more complicated.

Whenever I come across something I haven’t seen before, I always begin my research by looking through UOA’s internal artefact databases to see if we’ve found the artefact/mark/pattern before. These were of no help for researching my jar, and just confirmed my initial view on the artefact that it was ‘cool but strange’. If it isn’t something we’ve found before, then I turn to our trusty friend Google. This returned a whopping three results.

Hot tip for searching on google, if you include something in quotation marks it searches that phrase. When Google searches without quotation marks, it searches for the words but not in relation to each other- meaning the bottom two results were not relevant.

The top Google search result gave me my first lead! This was a jar, similar to mine, that was posted in an antique bottle forum. The jar was the same form as my one, but was a different shade of blue and had written on it: SHAIK FYZOOL KURREEM’S TRUE BENGAL MULLIGATAWNY PASTE. The poster on the bottle forum was asking for information on it. Sadly, nobody on the forum had any information, only the advice to give it a rub to see if a genie came out. Image: BeachComber, AntiqueBottles.Net.

This told me that whoever Shaik Fyzool Kurreem was, he was making multiple types of curry pastes. Unfortunately, Google wasn’t very helpful with figuring out who he was.

PapersPast is invaluable when researching 19th century artefacts. A lot of the time if I can’t find something on Google, I can find it in old newspapers. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case here.

When something cool lands on my desk, generally other people in the office will stop by and have a look. I can’t remember who suggested that “shaik” might be a different spelling of “sheikh”, but whoever it was, was bang on the money. Sheikh is an honorific title in Arabic that literally translates as “elder”, but was commonly used for chiefs, royalty, and religious scholars (thanks Wikipedia). I re-tried my Google search, and this time had a bit more luck.

A 166.67% increase in results by just searching “fyzool kurreem”. The top hit was the Mulligatawny paste jar that I’d already seen. The second and fourth results were from a British newspaper search engine that I needed to pay to access, so I ignored them. It was the third and fifth results that proved most interesting.

The third (and fifth) result was from Peter J. Atkins article “Vinegar and Sugar: The early history of Factory-Made Jams, Pickles and Saucers in Britain” in the book, The Food Industries of Europe in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The relevant page of the book was talking about Crosse and Blackwell, a British foodstuffs company that is still around today. “The products named in Crosse and Blackwell’s own advertisements came and went in a rapid cycle of innovation. In the 1830s it was Soho Sauce and Dinmore’s Essence of Shrimps… By 1845 Abdool Fygo’s Chutney and Fyzool Kurreem’s Currie and Mulligatawny Pastes had been added to the list.” (Atkins 2013: 46).

Now, up until this point, I had been picturing an old Bengali man in India stirring large earthenware pots of paste over a fire and bottling them into jars that he carefully painted his name on (ugh how colonial of me). I should have known that it was British. Crosse and Blackwell’s products are pretty common on our sites. They were a foodstuffs company based in Soho, London, who made products for both the domestic and export markets. The company was founded in 1829 when Edmund Crosse and Thomas Blackwell bought West and Wyatt, located at No. 11 King Street, having been apprentices there since 1819 (Jeffries et al. 2016).

We are lucky enough to have a book specifically on Crosse and Blackwell that covers the excavation of their factory. This is Crosse and Blackwell 1830-1921: A British Food Manufacturer in London’s West End by Nigel Jeffries, Lyn Blackmore and David Sorapure. The book discusses Crosse and Blackwell’s Indian products: “…by taking an unusual step in sending a representative with the first troops that were shipped out to India by the East India Company. This unnamed individual sent back new spices and other ingredients for the firm to experiment with. This resulted in Crosse and Blackwell’s Captain White’s Oriental Pickle and Curry Powder. Col Skinner’s Mango Relish also appears to have been developed at this time, together with Abdool Fygo’s Chutney and Mulligatawny Pastes” (Jeffries et al. 2016: 44).

I decided to google Abdool Fygo, since both books made reference to the product. What do you know, another jar with an ‘oriental’ appearance. This one says: “BENGAL CHUTNEY PREPARED BY SHAIK ABDOOL FYGO CALCUTTA IMPORTED ONLY BY GROSSE & BLACKWELL 21SOHO SQARE LONDON”. The style of text on it is almost identical to that of our jar and the mulligatawny paste, and the rolled rim and glazed body is also very similar in style. Image: WorthPoint.

At this point in my search, I’d successfully identified that Crosse and Blackwell were the manufacturer of the jar’s contents (which pottery made the jar for them remains a mystery). From the Atkins article I knew that the curry paste was introduced in or around 1845, but I didn’t know how long it was made for. Searches on Papers Past for “fyzool kurreem” and “abdool fygo” resulted in no results, while those for “curry paste” and “mulligatawny paste” returned hundreds. I tried similar searches on Trove, the Australian version of Papers Past, but these were also a dead end. I returned back to my google search results for “fyzool kureem” and clicked into the newspaper results.

From what I can gather, British newspaper archives are hidden behind a paywall and you have to pay to access the original- a big disappointment when you’re used to the free access from Papers Past. Even though I couldn’t see the original articles, the search engine gave the newspaper name and date along with a short snippet of where the phrase occurred in the newspaper. Scrolling through these previews showed that Abdool Fygo’s chutney was advertised alongside Fyzool Kurreem’s curry and Mulligatawny pastes. What was most interesting though, was that the advertisements began in 1845, and ended in 1850. Atkins said that Crosse and Blackwell cycled through product names quite quickly, and it seems as though Fyzool Kurreem’s curry paste was only produced for approximately five years, between 1845 and 1850. The newspaper advertisements also show that Crosse and Blackwell were advertising the product in British newspapers, but clearly not Australian and New Zealand newspapers, suggesting the product might have only been made for the domestic market.

It was at this point I ended my search. I had learnt that the jar was made for Crosse and Blackwell and likely dated some time between 1845 and 1850. I think that the jar epitomises some of the reasons why I find historical archaeology so interesting. There’s the research process itself. Being able to use tools like Google and newspaper archives to research products and people is something that’s unique to historical archaeology. Then there’s what the artefact says about the occupants of the site. This jar came from a small cottage on Barbadoes Street. The cottage was built in 1865/1866 and rented out for most of the 19th century. Assuming that the jar was deposited by one of the tenants, it was likely at least 20 years old by this time, if not older. It’s safe to say that any curry paste the jar held had long been eaten, and that the jar probably had a secondary function. Maybe as a small vase, given its decorative appearance, or possibly a keepsake. Regardless, the jar seems to have been brought over from Britain, suggesting it must have had some sentimental value for whoever owned it. Unfortunately, the tenants that rented out the cottage changed regularly, meaning we weren’t able to match the jar with a specific person.

There’s also what the artefact says about culture and society in the 19th century. While we’re excavating the archaeology of Christchurch, in many ways we’re also excavating the archaeology of the British empire. Crosse and Blackwell, a British company, were selling Indian style pastes and condiments, and were doing so in a way that commodified Indian culture to make their product seem authentic. The jars were deliberately designed to look foreign, especially with the blue glaze and textured surface. The brand names are Indian names, which were probably foreign “funny sounding names” (to quote NZ politicians from a few years ago) to British citizens, likely adding to the “authenticity” of the product. Which leads me to the final reason why I find historical archaeology so interesting, the impact of 19th century (and earlier) colonialism on our own culture and society. If Crosse and Blackwell were to release ‘Shaik Fyzool Kurreem’s Cury Paste’ today, people would probably call it out for what it is, cultural appropriation.

Back in 2018 some British breweries started selling New Zealand inspired beers and used Māori culture as part of their branding. They were called out for cultural appropriation, and commercialising Māori culture at the time. The comparisons with our jar are easy to make- especially with the Indian names and oriental inspired jar forms. Image source: TheSpinoff.

A curry paste jar, a keepsake, a symbol of British colonialism. One artefact, but multiple different stories and perspectives on what it represents.

Clara Watson

 

 

1 thought on “A Curry Paste Jar, a Keepsake, a Symbol of British Colonialism

  1. Another part of the story is the adoption by British society of parts of Indian culture, food in this instance but Orientalism was more general at the time, in part of society. It little compensated India for the damage done and the trade was British dominated. No doubt someone has written on the motivation somewhere, beyond the purely commercial.

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